Documentaries in India

More engaging than entertaining


May 14, 2019

/ By / New Delhi

India & You

May-June 2019

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Indian documentary film making is storytelling at its best, but it is no bedtime story. It makes one want to get up and get into action.

Purveyors of fiction films tend to marginalise documentaries as non-entertainment; yet they have no compunction about borrowing liberally from reality and simply covering it all up with an opening disclaimer that states that the film, though inspired by real-life events, is a work of fiction and any similarity to people, places, and events, is entirely coincidental. For both fiction and documentary, the inspiration runs parallel, the storytelling grammar differs but the ripples that arise from the truth can really make waves. Told well, the power of documentary-type storytelling has an engaging edge over mere entertainment. Conversely, the documentary does not lag behind in adopting the dramatic ways of fiction presentation, often, to recreate historical reality.

Fact over fiction

The Tashkent Files, a feature released recently as a fiction thriller, digs up the history of January 1966. After having won a war with Pakistan in December of the previous year, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Prime Minister of India, dies under mysterious circumstances in his bed, hours after signing the now famous Tashkent Agreement. A natural death or an alleged assassination, this was the premise of the film. Why did it take over half a century to bring the matter to the fore? The impact of the film on the young viewers of today was not surprising. After the obvious questioning of the motives of the establishment of those times for not doing anything about it, some viewers chose to take it one step further; the film was going to impact the way they would exercise their franchise during the current elections.

Biography – the prime facet of all documentary

It was perhaps best demonstrated by S. Krishnaswamy through Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi, the biography of India from 5,000 years ago to current times. The year was 1973 when none but the foolhardy or the very brave would venture into the realm of documentary and, then, go about creating a four-hour long film. India had its first woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, then, and that seemed a good enough inspiration. That, perhaps explains why this ambitious project also inspired a consortium of Hollywood distributors to get into a conversation with Krishnaswamy and Warner Brothers picking up his film for distribution in India. The film was screened in two parts of two hours each and it did well in almost all centres across India. No documentary has ever emulated this success.

Perhaps, because of the power of biographical storytelling, the basic essence of documentary film making got left out allowing documentaries to get relegated to the realm of information or propaganda. This blot took a long time for the documentary to live down. Coupled with the high cost of production, documentary, as a genre, was not the first choice of a filmmaker. Let alone providing a voice to the activist or the storyteller.

Personalising documentary film making

The bulk of the documentaries since then have come from the government’s own Films Division where, in between bland films bereft of true storytelling, emanated distinct bits of creative and experimental brilliance from the likes of Pramod Pati, Sukhdev, S N S Sastry and others. These films appeared like supernovas and their afterglow still lingers within the breasts of the documentary faithfuls. Digital access has allowed many more to savour these jewels from the past. Making personalised documentaries, however, still remained only a distant dream. (

Digital empowerment

The coming of age of digital film making, exhibition and later, distribution changed all, transforming and empowering the Indian documentary filmmaker, creating an environment of independence unfettered by geography, constraints of celluloid, political correctness, film school pedagogy, in some cases, even the censors’ happy scissors. Documentaries could now be made and seen, unrestricted, and hassle-free. Most important of all, the documentary had now acquired untold power to impact lives, influence change and as filmmakers got the hang of making them, refining their work technically as they sharpened their storytelling skills, documentaries became more and more engaging to wider audiences, often preferred over some of the fiction fare that was being spewed out in the name of entertainment.

Creating social value

In a country as vast as India, there is a story waiting to be told around every corner and some of them can only be best told as documentaries. Raising finance for documentaries is still a challenge; but, for the lucky few there is the Good Pitch programme, brought to India by the Indian Documentary Foundation (IDF). Through this programme, IDF connects Indian documentary filmmakers with foundations, organisations and individuals that can help add the extra mile. (www.

A filmmaker learns of a young lady, the wife of a cruel, wife-beating husband, who has learnt driving and become a taxi driver to be financially independent of the oppressive husband. The filmmaker sees a story here that can be turned into a film that can tell the story of this woman as it inspires other women like her. Good Pitch sees all this and more and gets the filmmaker to present her story to people who matter, the influencers, at a Good Pitch session. One fine gentleman from the worthy group surprises her at the event, with a present. A mini truck! Other generous souls offer to help the filmmaker with money, studio time and more to finish the film. Creating more than a win-win situation. All on the basis of a documentary.

Another documentary presents the story of rural journalists going digital where the news collection and distribution to subscribers will now be done digitally. At the Good Pitch session, the reporters were surprised to see their leader get a scooter as a gift for easier mobility, with a promise of more for the other reporters; and also, to begin with, some smartphones for capturing and transmitting. The cherry on the top came from a philanthropic organisation in the form of steady and sustained financial support for the future. All thanks to a documentary.

Cannes, get ready

Indian documentary filmmakers, time and time again, have made a mark for themselves across the world at Amsterdam, Busan, Locarno, Karlovy Vary, Venice, Rotterdam, Dubai, Paris, Chicago, Hong Kong, Munich among others. Is it not time for Cannes to take a re-look at India? There is more to documentaries, or for that matter any film from India, than abject poverty, terrorism and perversity. The spiritual, aesthetic, humane India is what the world came to India for. It’s time for Cannes to remove all earlier filters and get a fresh search team to India and look for those films from where emanates the true fragrance of India that the world has always been looking for and awaiting. It is already there in some of the Indian Fiction Cannes has yet to see, but it is more likely that it will be found in India’s documentaries. Maybe that can be the new attraction at Cannes.

(The writer makes documentaries and short films and can be contacted on



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